Pressure, Failure, and Happiness

I’ve read a lot in the last few years about what a poor choice it is to sacrifice 5+ years of good earning potential for a slim chance at a job where you’re under pressure from all sides. I’ve heard how horrible writing a dissertation is for your mental health, and how preparing to go up for tenure is even worse.

In “The Awesomest 7 year Postdoc,” Radhika Nagpal explains her approach to her first 7 years as faculty. Here’s what she did:

  • I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc.
  • I stopped taking advice.
  • I created a “feelgood” email folder.
  • I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.
  • I try to be the best “whole” person I can.
  • I found real friends.
  • I have fun “now”.

Her argument is that pretending like it’s a post-doc and enjoying the time before tenure will take pressure (and stress) off your early career, free you up to make meaningful choices for yourself, and stop contributing to the all-work-no-life culture in academia.

I think it’s worth thinking about this in light of the eponymous theory in Shawn Achor’s “the Happiness Advantage.” The book is well-worth reading (life-changing for me), but in very very brief, the idea is this: we think that if we become successful, we will be happy, but the data suggest that it’s the other way around– that happiness breeds success.

In the short term, for example, students who are asked to of the happiest day of their lives before taking a standardized test do better. Doctors given a small gift before a test of their diagnostic skill came to the correct diagnosis faster, were more creative, and were more able to change their minds when presented with new information. Dedicated practice of happiness and optimism can change your mindset and change your results on tasks, and over time can change your mindset, making this so-called “Happiness Advantage” a feature of your work all the time.

Your beliefs not only effect your performance, they are changeable: people who believe they can improve (called a “growth mindset”– see Carol Dweck) are more likely to take new opportunities to learn and they learn faster!

There’s a lot more to the book than this (because it is a book, and this is a blog post), but I will focus on a couple key takeaways for the early academic career that might be good supplements to advice in “the Awesomest 7-year Postdoc.”

First, focusing on how much you prepared and your knowledge of the subject matter before a presentation could put you in much better stead than worrying about your tendency to fidget or the faults in the slideshow. Note that these aren’t empty affirmations or false flattery, but a simple focus on what you are actually good at instead of what you are worried about. This is shown to reduce anxiety and improve performance.

Second, taking time to list 3 good things about your day trains your mind to look for the positives and the possibilities.I have recently restarted a gratitude practice in my bullet journal– three things a day, big or small. Participants who wrote down three good things each day for a week were happier and less depressed, even one, three, and six months later. Also, people who attend to the positive are more likely to notice opportunities for personal gain and growth. Pretty easy advice to take for people in any career :)

The third one is especially close to my heart, since I’m sort of obsessively afraid of failure. People who see failure and negative events as an opportunity for growth are more likely to identify and capitalize on those opportunities.  Psychologists call it “adversarial growth,” or, in appropriate cases, even “post-traumatic growth.” When people were taught to prevent errors when learning software, they learned less, worked slower, were less accurate, and had fewer feelings of self-efficacy than people who were guided into mistakes while they were learning.  This inspired me to follow the folks at the now-defunct “PhD in Progress podcast,” and refer to these mistakes, detours, and even epic failures as “secret learning.”

Lastly, people who view their work as a calling (instead of a job or a career) find their work more rewarding, work harder, and get ahead– this is true of medical doctors, janitors, and administrative assistants, among others I’m sure. Achor suggests an exercise: rewrite your job description as a “calling description.” He recommends writing down all of the tasks you perform at work, especially those that “feel devoid of meaning.” Then ask, “What is the purpose of this task? What will it accomplish?” If the answer you write down still seems trivial, ask yourself what the result leads to, and write that down. He suggests continuing this process until you have connected every menial task to a big picture you care about.

Here– I’ll try. Grading can be a real PITA. It takes forever; it’s not fun, but it requires focus; and it often makes students mad at me. But, in the big picture, even if I still don’t love it in the moment, I know that grading is the key way I can give my students individualized feedback. Even though they may not appreciate it at the time, this is how we pass along not only the content but the process of my discipline, and of learning generally. More broadly, as much as *I* think my research is important (and I can hope my discipline thinks it’s interesting, too) teaching students is probably the main way I will make an impact on the world.

Do you have a task rewrite to share, or another happiness practice? Please share in the comments :)

 

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